Kolkata: The Calcutta High Court Wednesday stayed an order for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into alleged irregularities in the recruitment of Group D employees in state-run secondary and higher secondary schools.
The interim relief of three weeks is a minor victory for the Mamata Banerjee government, which has been facing considerable political heat over the “scam”.
The court had ordered a CBI inquiry Monday to investigate the “invisible hand” behind the recruitment of at least 25 members, despite the School Service Commission (SSC) panel formed to hire them having been dissolved. The Banerjee government had then immediately challenged the order before a division bench.
For years now, Mamata has resisted CBI intervention in West Bengal issues, ranging from the alleged Narada sting operation or Saradha chit fund scam, to the cattle and coal smuggling probes, to investigations into post-poll violence.
In 2018, Mamata withdrew “general consent” for the CBI to conduct investigations, citing the potential for “misuse” by the Narendra Modi-led central government. The Centre has challenged this and the matter even reached the Supreme Court earlier this year, in the wake of post-election violence in West Bengal.
The imbroglio over the school appointments and the possibility of a CBI probe, therefore, come as a huge headache to the West Bengal government.
What’s the school ‘scam’ about?
In 2016, the West Bengal government had issued a notification to the School Service Commission (SSC) to recruit 13,000 Group-D employees for state-aided/-run schools. In 2019, the panel making the appointments had expired, but, despite that, at least 25 persons were allegedly appointed by the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education (WBBSE).
According to a petition filed in the court earlier this month, these “illegal” appointments indicated corruption in the system.
ThePrint reached advocate Bikram Banerjee, who is representing the petitioners in the matter, but he said he could not share any information about them since the matter is sub judice. He added that the petitioners are “concerned about their safety and security” and thus do not wish to disclose their identity.
The matter was taken up for hearing after the Calcutta High Court sought affidavits from the SSC and the WBBSE. However, both bodies contradicted each other in open court.
The SSC claimed in its affidavit that it had made no employee recommendations, while the WBSSE said it had received the data on a pen drive and the persons were duly appointed. During the course of the hearing, the petitioners made the claim that not just 25 but over 500 people were appointed after the SSC panel expired, and were now drawing salaries from the state government.
Why a CBI probe?
The murky circumstances and contradictions in the matter triggered the high court to order a CBI enquiry.
“I find that CBI enquiry (not any investigation at this stage) is required to identify the miscreants in this matter by whom some letters of recommendations were issued and the Board acted on,” observed the court. Terming the matter indicative of “serious illegality and irregularity”, the court also said that the CBI should look into “whether there is any money trail” in the issuance of the recommendation letters and subsequent appointments.
The Mamata government immediately challenged the order before a division bench and was given interim relief for three weeks Wednesday. Both the SSC and the WBBSE have been asked to hand over all the documents regarding the appointments in a sealed cover to the court.
Advocate General S.N. Mookherjee argued on behalf of the government that the investigation could be carried out by a state police team hand-picked by the court, or given to a retired judge. “Only very serious cases are given to the CBI. Then, what is the use of the state police?” he said.
The single-bench order had noted that the enquiry should be conducted by the CBI to keep public faith since the police is controlled by the state government.
Ammunition for the Opposition
The CBI may have been kept at bay for now, but the Opposition is busy taking potshots at the Trinamool Congress.
BJP national vice-president Dilip Ghosh told ThePrint that only the CBI could carry out an unbiased investigation. “We respect the court but the people of West Bengal have no faith in this state administration, its police, or the CID to carry out free and fair probe. That is why the court is left with no option every time but to hand [matters] over to the CBI.”
West Bengal Education Minister Bratya Basu told the media that he wasn’t in charge of the Education Ministry when the case first unfolded, and therefore couldn’t comment on the details. He said that investigations into wrongdoing would proceed in accordance with the court’s orders.
The court will take up the matter again Monday.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
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